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Funky Butt Brass Band puts its own stamp on New Orleans sound

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2013 - More than a century ago, Funky Butt Hall on Perdido Street in New Orleans was home base for cornet player Buddy Bolden and his band. Bolden, whose powerhouse, improvised horn sound became legendary in the clubs and streets of the city, even composed a tune called “Funky Butt Blues” that became his theme song, and eventually evolved into the classic song, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues (I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say).”

So when a group of St. Louis area musicians decided to start a band that took as its foundation the New Orleans brass band lineup – and also decided to call the group the Funky Butt Brass Band – the name carried plenty of cache, and also large expectations among fans of NOLA brass band music.

The Funky Butt Brass Band has more than met those expectations since the group made its debut in 2008. It has opened for the likes of Big Easy musical stalwarts Dr. John (at the Pageant) as well as the Rebirth Brass Band. Recently, Funky Butt shared the stage at with the up-and-coming NOLA band, Big Sam’s Funky Nation at the Old Rock House.

After releasing a critically acclaimed 2009 debut CD, “Cut the Body Loose,” FBBB followed up with “You Can Trust the Funky Butt Brass Band” in 2011, an effort that even gained notice (and critical praise) in the New Orleans music magazine, “Offbeat.”

In the review, Brian Boyles said: “These cats can play, and they offer nothing but praise for the traditional brass band, doing their best to imitate the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth.”

But there’s more to Funky Butt than a reverential homage to the NOLA brass band tradition. According to band members Tim Halpin (guitar) and Matt Brinkmann (sousaphone), the band certainly began as a way to honor the brass band sound they all loved. But the members of Funky Butt were also determined to create a unique variation on that tradition as well.

“We completely admire the New Orleans brass band tradition,” Halpin said during a recent conversation at a South Grand coffeehouse. “But we also didn’t want Funky Butt to just be a tribute band. We also wanted to expand our musical repertoire – using NOLA music as a jumping off place and bringing in other music, too.”

“That’s essentially what contemporary NOLA brass bands like the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth have done,” Brinkmann said. “They’re trying to keep the music fresh – and so are we. Everyone in the band brings in their own personal likes and influences, and we’re basically willing to try anything.”

In addition to Halpin and Brinkmann, the six-piece lineup of the band includes: Aaron Chandler, trombone and vocals; Adam Hucke, trumpet and vocals; Ben Reece, sax and vocals, and Ron Sikes on drums. The lineup is unchanged since the concept of the band surfaced during a 2008 conversation between Halpin and Sikes – both members of another band that specialized in New Orleans and Louisiana music – Gumbohead.

“Ron and I were on our way back from a Gumbohead gig in Chicago, and I remember we were listening to some New Orleans brass band music,” Halpin said. “Gumbohead had proven that St. Louis audiences had a definite affinity for New Orleans music, but there really wasn’t any band in St. Louis that was doing the NOLA brass band thing. So Ron and I discussed putting together a St. Louis area brass band. And finally, we decided to get serious about it.”

The roots of Funky Butt’s lineup evolved from Gumbohead, and the band actually began to develop its lineup by playing second lines at the conclusion of Gumbohead performances – playing as they left the stage and leading the crowd in an impromptu, funkified march.

Brinkmann was recruited into the group because he had once played the sousaphone; an instrument that’s essential because it supplies the bass beat for a NOLA brass band.

“I was volunteering at KDHX radio, and that’s where I met Andy Coco, who in addition to being one of the managers at KDHX was the bass player with Gumbohead,” Brinkmann said. “Andy found out I had played the sousaphone in high school and a couple years in college at UMSL, and he encouraged me to pick it up again and try playing it in the New Orleans brass band style. So I ended up playing in some of those second lines with Gumbohead.”

“Ben Reese also played saxophone with us in those second lines,” Halpin said, so both he and Matt made sense to be part of the new group we were putting together. And Ben knew Aaron, and Aaron knew Adam, so that’s how the members all came together.”

Soon Funky Butt began to rehearse and perform its own gigs – often opening for Gumbohead as the new group began to develop its repertoire and eventually going out on its own.

“Our first gig as Funky Butt was at the City Museum, and we got a good reaction,” Brinkmann said. “So we kept things going, and it seemed to be going over well. I remember later when we were playing a Tuesday night at the Broadway Oyster Bar, and the music just seemed to hit a groove that really connected with the audience. Aaron turned around to the band with this big smile on his face. I think that’s when we knew we had something that was going to work.”

Funky Butt’s repertoire began with a core group of compositions that were straight out of the NOLA brass band tradition. But the band also began to work in music that had a decidedly eclectic flavor. For example, the bands’ first CD, “Cut the Body Loose,” included Big Easy staples such as “Bourbon Street Parade,” “Palm Court Strut” Professor Longhair’s “Go To the Mardi Gras” and Kermit Ruffin’s “When I Die You Better Second Line.” But there were two songs by legendary Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, plus R&B sax great King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade,” and a version of “St. Louis Blues.”

“Our typical set list might include everything from a King Oliver jazz tune from 1928 to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ to songs by the Jackson Five, and end up with a traditional New Orleans tune like ‘Bourbon Street Parade,’” Halpin said. “We’ve even added a little hip-hop influence to the mix. That’s a pretty broad spectrum!”

“In a way, that makes it harder for people to define us as a band,” Brinkmann said. “But that’s definitely not a bad thing. Flexibility is good in terms of having a lot of different music we can play. And it also makes it more interesting for us as a band.”

Of course, the ability of the band to take its music off the stage and lead a second line parade at a performance lends a unique dynamic to the way the musicians can interact with an audience. And it can also come in very handy when Funky Butt encounters unusual circumstances at a performance.

“One of the great things about the group is that we have the ability to unplug and take our music to the streets,” Halpin said. “I put down the guitar and play a bass drum, and Ron picks up a snare drum and we’re ready to second line. I remember one time we were playing a Riverfront Times music showcase and the power went out. We just kept on playing.”

Brinkmann added, “I remember once we were playing at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, and a fire alarm went off. We just started a second line and led the people outside!”

It’s been two years since the release of Funky Butt’s last CD, so a natural question involves what the group might have in store in terms of another recording project. According to Halpin and Brinkmann, that’s a complex question under debate by the musicians.

“That’s a widely discussed topic at band rehearsals,” Halpin said with a laugh. “We’ve actually talked about recording a kid’s CD. But the key to really doing another recording is coming up with original tunes. And it’s not just about writing new songs – it’s also about playing them live before you record them.

“Really, the main thing we’re focusing on is keeping ourselves entertained,” Brinkmann said. “If we can keep things fresh and interesting for ourselves, the music will be interesting to audiences, too.”

In the meantime, the band is focused on immediate performances – especially a concert this Friday, March 22 at Jazz at the Bistro.

“We’re really looking forward to Friday,” Halpin said. “Playing at the Bistro is always fun. We’ve also got a gig on April 7 at Demo in the Grove, opening for the Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans. And we’re playing the Laumeier Sculpture Park Art Fair on May 12, and the opening concert of the Whitaker Music Series at the Missouri Botanical Garden on June 5. So we’re definitely keeping busy!”

For more info on the band and upcoming performances, go to www.funkybuttbrassband.com.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.